Unelectability, Sovereignty and Occupy

By Thomas Swann

Highly popular candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn were deemed unelectable. In being described as unelectable, these politicians are being excluded due to the fact that they don’t fit within the proscriptions of neoliberal politics and economics. Instead of the government being sovereign and demanding a certain people, it is the people that must demand governance through a range of structures and processes that are built on mass participation.


In 1953, after the failed uprising in East Germany, Bertolt Brecht wrote the poem “Die Lösung” (The Solution):

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?


These last lines, the ones about the government dissolving the people and electing another, have come to typify the attitude of authoritarian regimes that see themselves as the correct realisation of the will of the people, even if the people don’t in fact express that will themselves. The people, in such an eventuality, are simply wrong and must be put right by the government, with the expectation that the means of this putting right can extend to violent force.


Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Being Unelectable

Brecht’s eloquence on the subject can be applied not just to examples of overt tyranny but as readily to the mentality of modern day neoliberal governance. One of the clearest and most recent examples of this can be seen in the response of elites in supposedly left-of-centre political parties in the US and the UK to left-wing candidates, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn respectively. In both cases, the established leaderships of the Democratic Party and the Labour Party decried the candidates as “unelectable”. In Corbyn’s case, nationwide polling and some by-election results certainly haven’t been yet able to disprove this claim, but the charge of unelectability was made even before such polling was evident. For the Democrats in the US, however, the polling for Sanders nationally was consistently stronger versus Donald Trump than was polling for Hillary Clinton in the same predicted race. It was clear from quite early on the primary process that Sanders had a far better chance of beating Trump than Clinton, with explanations often coming down to his anti-establishment appeal to working class voters left behind by the economic process of de-industrialisation.

Yes, Clinton was still predicted to beat Trump, but on such a knife-edge that that result was far from certain; history has been the decider in this case. A similar approach can be seen within the elite of the Labour Party in the UK. Since Corbyn was elected as leader following a poor showing for the party in the 2015 General Election, the (neo)liberal centre that became entrenched under Tony Blair (some his supporters, others fractionally to the left but still committed to centrist politics) have used every opportunity to undermine his more left-wing leadership, even if that has meant undermining the ability of the party as a whole to act as an effective opposition. Just as the elite of the Democratic Party, it seems, would prefer a Republican president to a left-wing Democrat, so too would the elite of Labour prefer a Conservative government to a left-wing Labour one.

For these party elites, the issue at stake is not as simple as how they act in the face of evidence. Indeed, in the case of Corbyn the evidence of his popularity is far less convincing than in that of Sanders. Rather, of importance here is the ways in which they both made use of the idea of “unelectability” to discredit the respective candidates. Both Sanders and Corbyn, we were told by those at the top of their parties, were unelectable. They would be unable to win general elections. While the example of Corbyn may well support this narrative (although without being undermined by the party and in the media, perhaps the polling would be otherwise), the example of Sanders certainly doesn’t. The fact that a highly popular candidate was deemed unelectable suggests that the term refers less to electability and more to something else entirely.

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While there have been suggestions that the notion of sovereignty has been rejected under neoliberal forms of governance, and that instead there is a privileging of self-determining flows of capital in a “free market”, there exists in the reality of neoliberalism a very active control of political and economic activity. As David Harvey, for example, has shown in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, neoliberalism would have been impossible as an economic reality without the concerted effort of individuals and groups in positions of power. The market imagined by neoliberal thinkers had to be built, and this required technocratic elites to assert their sovereignty as the rightful deciders of what ought to happen in society. One of the results of this is the branding of Corbyn and Sanders as unelectable. Here, unelectability has little to do with popular appeal or support as measured in opinion polls. Instead, “unelectable”, as the notion is deployed by elites in parties like the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK, means “unacceptable according to what a correct understanding of politics, economics and society demands”.

There exists in the reality of neoliberalism a very active control of political and economic activity.

Sovereignty, rather than being understood as residing with “The People” who express their will in one way or another, is reframed as residing with elites who understand the world and what needs to be done in it. When someone like Corbyn or Sanders is rejected as being unelectable, this has no reference at all to whether or not they could win an election. In being described as unelectable, these politicians are being excluded from the realm of possibility due to the fact that they don’t fit within the proscriptions of neoliberal politics and economics.

In shifting sovereignty from an idea like “The People” to a privileged elite of philosopher kings, neoliberal governance is playing the same game as the authoritarian regimes that are the target of Brecht’s insightful poem. If the electorate were to vote for candidates like Corbyn or Sanders, this would not prove to the elites of their parties that they are in fact electable. It would instead signal that the people who elected them don’t understand how the world ought to be run and their decision should perhaps be annulled. In these cases, neoliberal logic would surely dictate that the electorate ought to be deposed for having chosen unwisely and the government or the party elites should indeed find another that will vote for the right candidates (i.e. ones that uphold neoliberal political and economic doctrine).

This is precisely what happened in Chile in response to Salvador Allende’s election. Henry Kissinger justified US support for the coup that deposed Allende in 1973 by saying, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”


Occupy and the 99%

What then of an alternative to this account of sovereignty that gives party elites the legitimate power to declare potentially popular candidates and polices as unelectable? As Paolo Gerbaudo argues,1 “sovereignty has become the master-frame of contemporary politics; a discursive and political battleground where the battle for a post-neoliberal hegemony will either be won or lost, and will take either a progressive or regressive direction”. With the rejection of the neoliberal framing of sovereignty as the preserve of elite experts at the top of the great institutions of politics and the economy, the question Gerbaudo does well to focus attention on is whether a populist rearticulation of sovereignty as residing with ‘The People’ is harnessed by the right or by the left.

Research I have conducted with Ruth Kinna and Alex Prichard on Occupy2 has highlighted how a popular framing of sovereignty, a framing that puts an expansive and inclusive notion of “The People” or “the 99%” at the base of accounts of democracy, can translate into concrete and well-defined decision-making practices. Starting with a set of principles related to autonomy, solidarity, equality, diversity, inclusivity and participation, the Occupy movement, in different ways across the various encampments, developed methods aimed at seeing these principles realised in processes such as consensus decision making, mass general assemblies and semi-autonomous working groups. One of the central elements of these processes was a rejection of representative politics whereby decision making privilege is restricted to a group of leaders.

When the movement encountered problems associated with entrenched privileges around race and gender, ways were often found of reformulating structures and practices through safer spaces policies and caucuses that aimed at facilitating the participation of groups often excluded from mainstream and radical conversations. In response to the logistical problems that emerged in passing every decision through the mass general assemblies, innovative methods were developed that tried to marry the inclusive participation of general assemblies – where everyone present could be involved in consenting or not to proposals concerning strategic perspective – and the practical effectiveness of spokescouncils – where delegates from working groups and caucuses would decide on day-to-day logistical running of the camps.

What Occupy offers is a concrete example of how a radical populist framing of sovereignty as an inclusive and diverse “People”, as opposed to the exclusive populism of the right, can not only capture the imagination but also translate into organisational forms. In constituting the 99% as an imaginary, Occupy drew on existing social movement practice, and the experiences of the Arab Spring and the movement of squares in Europe, to develop a host of structures that gave this idea of sovereignty a political expression in participatory, consensus-based direct democracy. If a radical account of sovereignty means popular control, then the democracy of Occupy shows how this might be possible.

What Occupy offers is a concrete example of how a radical populist framing of sovereignty as an inclusive and diverse “People”, as opposed to the exclusive populism of the right, can not only capture the imagination but also translate into organisational forms.

For those calling on reforming (or revolutionising) existing parties like the Democrats and Labour, changing those in leadership positions is not enough to move away from the neoliberal logic of elite rule. Mass organisations must be democratised in radical ways that begin from an alternative account of sovereignty that is embodied in practices and structures of decision making and participation that run through these organisations from bottom to top. This means that the challenge is not merely to remove elites from positions of power in politics and economics but to find methods of aligning the horizontal and participatory nature of social movements like Occupy with the bureaucratic and centralising nature of mass organisation.3 This is as much the challenge for the radical left as is the reassertion of radical forms of sovereignty. Indeed, meeting one demands meeting the other. Radical sovereignty and participatory direct democracy need to be developed hand in hand.

Brecht’s poem captures in exquisite simplicity the nature of sovereignty in authoritarian politics, an insight that applies to neoliberal governance in a similar way as it does to authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe in the latter half of the 20th Century. Occupy, and other radical social movements, suggest how the promise of democracy, inverted so cleverly in those closing lines, can be realised. Instead of the government being sovereign and demanding a certain people, it is the people, according to the narrative of Occupy, that must demand not democratic government in the centralised, statist mould we are familiar with, but governance through a range of structures and processes that are built on mass participation.

The author would like to thank David Harvie and Ruth Kinna for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


About the Author

Thomas Swann is a Research Associate at Loughborough University working on the “Constitutionalising Anarchy” research project (www.anarchyrules.info). He completed his PhD at the University of Leicester School of Management in September 2015. He is a member of the international advisory board of the journal Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies and in 2014 co-edited a ground-breaking special issue of the journal ephemera on anarchism and critical management studies. Dr. Swann has published on anarchist ethics and organisation theory and has contributed to public debates on Scottish independence, contemporary social movements and the connections between anarchism and cybernetics. His writing has appeared in The Conversation, TIME, Roar Magazine, Bella Caledonia, the Times Higher Education Supplement and OpenDemocracy. 

1. https://www.opendemocracy.net/paolo-gerbaudo/post-neoliberalism-and-politics-of-sovereignty
2. https://theconversation.com/anarchy-in-the-usa-five-years-on-the-legacy-of-occupy-wall-street-and-what-it-can-teach-us-in-the-age-of-trump-68452
3. https://assembliesfordemocracy.org/2015/07/14/assemblies-for-democracy-a-theoretical-framework-by-richard-gunn-r-c-smith-and-adrian-wilding/

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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